Debt of a Salesman: Obama, Democrats Poised to Embrace Deal that May Slash Energy, Enviro Spending for Many, Many Years

In one of the biggest strategic blunders of his presidency, Obama has bought into the erroneous Republican frame that the biggest problem facing this country is our national debt.  Worse, he has chosen to be a salesman for a centrist agenda of austerity, not the progressive one of investment.

In the past few weeks, Obama has used the presidential bully pulpit to its fully capacity for the first time since taking office.  Sadly, he’s chosen to sell the public on the nonsensical notion that biggest short-term and long-term threat facing the nation is the national debt and over-spending.

Gone is any discussion of the things the public cares most about right now — creating jobs and restoring our manufacturing base, as a new poll makes clear (see figure).  Gone is any discussion of the progressive policies Obama himself used to message on, albeit halfheartedly — an investment agenda, energy security, competing with China.  Gone is this lofty rhetoric from a long, long time ago (well, 2010, actually):  “The nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy. And America must be that nation.”

I  doubt most climate hawks and progressives outside of the DC Beltway fully appreciate what the emerging debt deal would likely mean for energy and environmental spending over the next decade.  As E&E News (subs. req’d) bluntly explains this morning:

As the capital’s debt-limit drama enters its final act today, the last two solutions standing — one Democratic, one GOP — would slash long-term energy and environmental spending to a degree comparable with the fiscally austere deal struck to avert a springtime federal shutdown.

The bipartisan alignment on knifing what is likely to be billions of dollars from U.S. EPA and the Energy and Interior departments’ budgets over the next 10 years is drawing little notice as the debt-limit talks hurtle toward a hectic climax marked by bitter intra-party tensions….

Both party leaders’ spending caps would represent a cut of more than $40 billion next year relative to the CBO baseline set by the government funding deal for 2011 that averted a shutdown in April. By 2021, CBO estimated, the Reid approach would mean a $125 billion cut below the shutdown-deal baseline, or $6 billion more in cuts than Boehner’s plan.

Those long-term cuts refer to the panoply of domestic agency spending, from EPA air-pollution monitoring to DOE efficiency grants to many other non-energy or environmental programs. But on a more granular level, the 16 percent slice taken from EPA’s budget in the April shutdown deal could well be the shape of things to come for most non-defense federal programs, unless the final debt pact takes a turn toward the left.

I think it is even worse than that for a couple of reasons.

First, Obama would seem to have accepted the dreadful GOP position that we can only raise the debt ceiling with an accompanying deal that lowers the future debt by the same amount.  And, on top of that, he’s bought into the notion that revenue increases (aka tax hikes) are at most one third of the debt reduction.  Even worse, the deal that seems inevitable now has no revenue increases whatsoever.  If  you were wondering whose bluff got called, that pretty much tells  you everything you need to know.

Second, energy and environmental spending are not the most sacrosanct elements of nonmilitary discretionary spending.   Talking Points Memo has this headline today

Whatever The Outcome Of The Debt Vote, The Age Of Austerity Is Here

With military spending seemingly getting its own spending cap and glide path from the deal, at least in Reid’s version, non-military domestic discretionary spending will have its own pretty serious restrictions — and this includes things like the medical research and the VA and Homeland Security, which historically have had stronger constituencies.

Yes, some believe that the next deal, presumably after the 2012 election, would focus more on revenues and entitlements, but in an age of austerity, who precisely will be vetoing bills that continue to slash energy and environmental funding to meet spending caps agreed to by both parties and the President?

If it wasn’t clear before it is crystal clear now that the people pushing a massive government spending program for clean energy are living on “Another Earth.”  The only plausible scenario now for seriously addressing US greenhouse gas emissions in a way that would enable a global deal and give us some chance of averting catastrophic multiple, simultaneous climate impacts is for a serious carbon price to be part of the post-2012-election budget deal (see “Bombshell: High and rising price for carbon pollution emerges as credible deficit reduction strategy“).  And it ain’t that plausible unless Obama becomes as much a salesman for that approach as he has for debt reduction in general.

Here’s more from E&E News:

“We’re fighting riders today on the Hill in the Interior funding bill for one year, but this sets up the blueprint for potentially a number of years,” Sierra Club deputy national campaigns director Melinda Pierce said of the debt byplay between House GOP and Senate Democratic leaders.

“And it’s dialing back funding to the place where it can have crippling effects on some of the natural resources programs, on programs that keep clean air.”

…  Reid’s plan would cap that domestic discretionary pot of money at $1.045 trillion in 2012 budget authority and let it rise to $1.228 trillion in 2021, according to independent Congressional Budget Office projections. Boehner’s plan offers a similar budget authority cap that tops out at $1.043 trillion in 2012 and $1.234 trillion in 2021. The two plans could yet change….

“I’m very concerned with where we’re going on this debt deal,” Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s top Democrat, said yesterday. “Republicans are pushing for not just a level of cuts, but as much cuts as possible in the first couple of years.”

Alan Rowsome, director of conservation funding for the Wilderness Society said, “If the years go by and you’re stuck in this trap [of lower funding], you’re not going to be able to get out of it.”

Future allocations for EPA-Interior and DOE spending bills, however, are likely to remain heavily influenced by previous years’ apportionment. That means that the April cuts to environmental agencies, which packed a billion-dollar punch to state programs for clean drinking water and water pollution cleanups, are positioned to have a lingering effect on long-term agency spending .

I see a point at which we just can’t enforce our environmental laws because we don’t have the money to do that” if the trend being set during the current debt talks continues, Friends of the Earth energy tax analyst Ben Schreiber said. “A point where we end up eliminating programs that are essential, like money for renewable energy development.”

What’s saddest of all is that this is neither good policy nor good politics, as a new bipartisan poll reveals:

July 28, 2011 – A new, bipartisan national poll conducted by The Mellman Group and Ayres, McHenry & Associates shows that voters want Washington to act on jobs, especially in manufacturing, which they believe will help restore America’s lost status as the world’s number one economy.  Despite overwhelming public concern about these issues, fewer voters now believe the President or either party in Congress are focused on them than thought so in 2010.

Obama thinks that 1) he can convince independents he is the most reasonable person in Washington and 2) they will vote for him for that reason and 3) he won’t suffer any serious negative consequences from pissing off progressives.

I think #1 may be true (the bar is a low one), but I have serious doubts about #2 and #3 — and, in any case, what does it get you if you’ve bought into and reinforced the GOP narrative that debt and spending concerns reign supreme, which will undermine short-term and long-term efforts to create jobs or promote clean energy or reduce oil dependence or cut carbon pollution?

During the campaign, Obama was a pretty good salesman for progressive values and policies.  In his first two years, Obama was a lousy salesman, but he was still for the most part pursuing those values and policies — at least until he walked away from the climate bill  with nary a speech.  Now, day in and day out he is a salesman for debt reduction.  We traded in “Change we can believe in” for Ross Perot.

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